Inside the 'Final Fantasy VII Remake' Team's "Familiar Yet New" Adaptation of a Classic

Final Fantasy VII Remake Game Still - Publicity - H 2020
Courtesy of Square Enix
Producer Yoshinori Kitase and co-director Naoki Hamaguchi talk about bringing Cloud Strife and his Avalanche allies to life for a new generation of gamers.

[This story contains heavy spoilers for Final Fantasy VII Remake.]

Twenty-three years after the original game's release, Square-Enix's Final Fantasy VII Remake burst to life, arriving in April with as much anticipation powering it as a level four limit break. Still featuring mako-eyed mercenary Cloud Strife in the starring role with environmentalist allies Barret Wallace and Tifa Lockhart along for the ride, Remake appeared as an apparent remake of only the first five hours of the 1997 original Final Fantasy VII storyline — "appeared" being the operative word.

Starting with the game's second chapter, in which silver-haired antagonist Sephiroth makes an early debut and a small army of hooded "whispers" appear to terrorize local florist Aerith Gainsborough, Final Fantasy VII Remake was clearly offering up something new in its retelling of the classic. But just how drastically new? By the end of the line, the answer to that harrowing question made itself known, if not yet fully known.

The final act of Remake features Cloud, Aerith, Tifa, Barret and new ally Red XIII battling both Sephiroth and these whispers, in fact arbiters of fate itself, in a metaphysical war to rewrite history. The result: a new Final Fantasy VII narrative that now resides in "boundless" but "terrifying" freedom, according to Aerith herself. Fans of the original game were treated to a largely faithful adaptation over the course of Remake, but as the ending indicates, the guardrails are now well and fully off, with massive deviations in the story all too possible. (Food for thought: Will one of the most iconic deaths in video game history still happen in a future installment of the Final Fantasy VII Remake project? As it stands, what was once a given now feels like a wide-open unknown, for better and for worse.)

Without diving into the ending in granular detail, Final Fantasy VII Remake producer Yoshinori Kitase and co-director Naoki Hamaguchi answered some questions about the game in an email exchange with The Hollywood Reporter. Kitase and Hamaguchi dove into their "familiar yet new" approach to adapting a classic, bringing Sephiroth into the story earlier than anticipated, the defining new music track created for the game by legendary composer Nobuo Uematsu, and more.

This game has a few major departures from the original. How did you decide what areas and characters should be expanded upon and what moments should stay the same?

Naoki Hamaguchi: There are many aspects that are somewhat departures from the original, but we aimed to deliver a game experience that players would find “familiar yet new” rather than "completely new." We wanted to not have to cut away from the characters as much as in the original game, where you would really be traversing across fixed screens, rather than areas. By filling in these gaps, and making the traversal more realistic, we really wanted to create a deeper level of immersion, and of course that gives us more time and moments with the characters.

“Paying homage to the source material” served as a basis, but the original game is over 20 years old and the way in which many aspects were depicted back then could seem either outdated or unsuitable for this day and age. As such, there are many locations in which we challenged ourselves to largely “remake” the presentation while maintaining the essence of the original. This includes Wall Market, the Train Graveyard, and the Sector 7 Pillar; we took areas that could not be fully expressed back then and focused on reimagining those locations.

Are there any sections of the original that were deemed “sacred” and not subject to change?

Yoshinori Kitase: We didn’t lay out any rules in particular, but maintaining “elements that remain in the memories of our fans” is an understanding shared among the entire team that worked on the game.

The Honeybee Inn section of the game has been lauded for how it was handled. Was this a particularly challenging subject to approach given cultural differences between the late 1990s and today? How did you approach updating this section of the game?

Hamaguchi: From an ethical perspective, it’s true that we need to be more mindful in our portrayal compared to the time of the original release. Therefore, we decided to largely reimagine the events that unfold throughout Wall Market, including Honeybee Inn. We felt, let’s make it highly entertaining and increase the showbiz aspect of the setting. The French Moulin Rouge and Japanese burlesques served as reference material as we worked to enhance the Honeybee Inn through the dance battle. In essence, we’re paying homage to the enchantment of Wall Market, so I believe we were able to make the area feel familiar yet new, rather than a departure from the source material. 

Sephiroth has a significantly expanded role in the Midgar section of the narrative. Why did you decide to give him more screen time earlier on than in the original?

Kitase: It goes without saying that nobody knew how the FFVII story would unfold at the time of the original release. In order to heighten the threat of Sephiroth, the antagonist, we made a conscious decision to not show Sephiroth toward the first half of the game. This approach is similar to the storytelling found in mystery novels seeking out the culprit, and it’s also a production approach taken by the movie Jaws to heighten the looming threat. However, with FFVII Remake, we knew that many fans were already familiar with Sephiroth and we determined the same approach to production wouldn’t be as meaningful. Instead, we wanted to make it clear that his presence as a source of threat is one that dominates throughout the Remake project, and landed on the direction of having him appear from the beginning in a manner that would leave a lasting impression.

Red XIII isn’t a playable character in this game. Why was that decision made?

Hamaguchi: Red XIII appears toward the latter half of the story, so we felt there was insufficient time to really develop his character in a way that players would fully enjoy playing as him in this game. That said, I do feel it was extremely important to build and establish the relationship between Cloud, the crew and Red XIII when considering future developments [in the story]. So, from the early stages, we had determined to use him as a starting point in the level design to complete the area around Hojo’s research lab. That location appears toward the end of this game. For those who felt disappointed about Red XIII not being playable in this installment, it would make me happy if you look forward to the next game.  

There are lots of nods to the original game in this remake, but also to other classic Final Fantasy titles. What's your favorite Easter egg? Are there ones that fans haven't caught yet?

Hamaguchi: I think my favorite nod to the original is where Cloud and Aerith make their way through the rooftops of abandoned slum houses after escaping the church. The same scene exists in the original, and I felt that the sense of Aerith and Cloud getting to know each other was expressed well through that sequence. Portraying this more realistically with the modern technology available to us over the original allowed us to really take in the scenery of the slums and Midgar. Even as a person creating the game, I remember how it felt both familiar and new during development and how it got me thinking, “So this is what the surrounding scenery looked like when Aerith and Cloud were making their way through this area in the original game.” Perhaps a harder to recognize homage to the original would be, again, at the church … between the time Cloud falls into the church and Reno appears, the player can freely roam around inside. During that time, if the player moves to the area around the church exit, they will hear Reno considerately say the following: “Hang back. We’re not in any hurry.” This is actually a line that was implemented in the original, and the team working on this location proposed to include it in the remake as it was found in the source material.

Where did the idea to include new characters like Roche, Chadley, etc., into the narrative come from?

Hamaguchi: There are many characters depicted in the Compilation of Final Fantasy VII projects (Before Crisis, Crisis Core, Dirge of Cerberus, Advent Children) and titles that made an appearance in Final Fantasy VII Remake, but Roche and Chadley were originally proposed by the game design team, and we had requested our writer Mr. Nojima to incorporate them into the scenario. Regarding Roche, we originally considered making him a boss that concludes the motorcycle minigame as you head toward Sector 7. That said, we thought his originality as a character could pan into something interesting and decided to use his appearance in the motorcycle minigame as foreshadowing. We expanded on this by making him the boss for the Sector 7-6 Annex. In the cutscene, a strange bond of sorts can be seen forming between Cloud and Roche, and I’m also personally interested in seeing how things are going to unfold between them in the future. Regarding Chadley, we wanted to include content in which materia could be obtained through mission rewards in parallel with the main story progression; considering lore, we came up with a role that would make him a researcher working for Shinra.

Jessie has become a fan favorite. Did you know that players would connect so strongly with a character who was such a minor presence in the original game?

Kitase: I did imagine this would happen to a certain extent. After the original game released, she was also a favorite character of ours, so it was director Nomura’s desire from the early stages to want to depict [the three Avalanche members: Jessie, Biggs and Wedge] in depth. As a result of Mr. Nojima’s distinctive dialogue, the voice cast's performance, and the cutscene team’s wonderful direction, we were able to successfully depict her as a captivating character.

The music in FFVII Remake is a great mix of the original soundtrack, remixes and new tracks. How did that come together? What was Nobuo Uematsu's involvement?

Kitase: Mr. Uematsu expressed a strong desire to compose a main theme song [a vocal track] for this game that did not exist in the original. As we wanted to include a dynamic soundtrack that matches the action and narrative onscreen, it required a very large volume of new arrangements and new music for the new sections. Therefore, the arrangements for many of the in-game music had been entrusted to composers that have a connection with Final Fantasy and are also trusted by Mr. Uematsu and me. In turn, we asked Mr. Uematsu to focus on the production of the main theme song which we believe resulted in a wonderful track imbued with soul.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.